But Dean’s testimony changed, too. In switching sides politically, Dean retained a very prominent and well-connected Democrat, Charles Shaffer, as his criminal defense lawyer. Shaffer and Dean had over a dozen contacts with career prosecutors during the month of April 1973. And Dean’s story continued to evolve, as he sought to make himself into a critical witness: at April’s beginning, he said that he could “deliver” campaign chief John Mitchell and his deputy, Jeb Magruder; it wasn’t until several weeks later that he first began to accuse White House chief of staff Bob Haldeman and domestic adviser John Ehrlichman of any involvement in a cover-up conspiracy. The exact quote from the prosecutor’s hand-written notes of October 10, 1973, is: “Dean becomes antagonistic to Ehrlichman & Haldeman, whereas before he had given impression that H [Haldeman] was clean & was restrained as to E’s [Ehrlichman’s] involvement.”
Most astonishingly, the career prosecutors’ notes make clear that Dean never accused President Nixon of any personal involvement until after he was fired as the president’s counsel on April 30, 1973. Only then did his story change – and not just a little. “On May 3, Dean began focusing on Presidential involvement, thus dramatically changing his previous stance,” the prosecutors’ November 15, 1973 memo reads.
Such changes in a witness’s story are required by law to be shared with defense counsel. But this clearly exculpatory information was never shared with the Nixon team. Why? Perhaps prosecutors felt it critical to increase Dean’s credibility as their principal witness, not to undermine it.
What the prosecutors did do, in this regard, was get trial judge John Sirica to sentence Dean to a one-to-four-year prison term, with incarceration to begin on the first day of the cover-up trial. Thus, Dean could testify – as the leadoff prosecution witness – that he was being punished for his own involvement – and so too should his former colleagues, whom he now accused of being involved with him in the cover-up. That result was very effective testimony and Nixon’s senior aides were convicted on all counts.
Then, but a week after the trial had ended, Judge Sirica, on his own motion, reduced Dean’s sentence to “time served” – setting him completely free after only four months of technical confinement. In actuality, Dean had never spent a single night in jail: he spent his nights in a witness holding facility at Ft. Holabird, Maryland. On most days, he was driven by federal marshals to his dedicated office in the special prosecutors’ suite, where he worked on his book. Amazingly, Judge Sirica and the Watergate prosecutors each bragged in their later books about how this approach (of imposing a harsh sentence and imprisoning Dean before his trial testimony) made him into a much more believable witness. In truth, this worked a fraud on the trial jurors and on the American public – who had falsely been led to believe that Dean was being appropriately punished for his own extensive involvement.
Dean is widely remembered for his devastating July 25, 1973 appearance before the Senate Watergate Committee. But his appearance was little more than a well-staged and carefully rehearsed performance. We now know that Dean’s written statement had been drafted during the course of secret consultations with Samuel Dash, the Committee’s chief counsel. His appearance was deliberately timed for the end of the day, to assure no opportunity for questions or rebuttal.  Furthermore, in direct violation of Committee rules, copies of Dean’s statement had not made available to Committee members in advance of his appearance.
What also is striking, when read today, is that (contrary to breathless media reports at the time) Dean never actually accused President Nixon of personal involvement in the cover-up; the best he could do was to assert his subsequent conclusion that the president must have known more than he was letting on during their meetings.
Moreover, while much was made of Dean’s “phenomenal memory,” a February 6, 1974 analysis prepared by the special prosecutor’s staff details some 19 “material discrepancies” between Dean’s Senate testimony and what was recorded on the White House tapes during his meetings with President Nixon.
John Dean is a convicted felon, sentenced to a prison term of one-to-four-years, and disbarred from the practice of law for the past 45 years – but he remains a media hero, the toast of the liberal Eastern Establishment, because he changed his story of what had happened to save himself and to sink his former colleagues. Fact is, the ugly truth about John Dean is far different from what the American people have been led to believe.